Friday, 27 April 2012

A Dirty Weekend in Paris, with beer

"Here are the keys", he said. "I changed the sheets on the sofa bed and now I am off  to the South of France. See you next week." And with that we found ourselves alone in a 'Cute little apartment in the best district of Paris'.

We didn't know him from Adam but his name was Frederic. His food was in the fridge, his dirty washing was in a pile in the bathroom. There was a ring of dirt around the bath. No vacuum cleaner (though there was a pipe from one) not even a dust pan and brush. All the wardrobe doors were bike-padlocked up. Just two drawers to put our stuff in. There was more but I won't bore you. Mmmm. Cute.

But it certainly was central; the 1st Arrondissement. The Louvre and Notre Dame were just a few streets away. The Gothic gargoyles and flying buttresses of the Eglise Saint Eustache loomed over us as we looked out of our first floor windows. The street was quiet and the windows double-glazed, although the Pompiers de Paris had their station literally next door. Fortunately they don't put the siren on until they leave the street.

It was a rainy week and not quite the Springtime in Paris we had hoped for. We were grumpy at first but, for me at least, Paris began to get under my skin. I was warming to it's history and grandeur as the days passed. We walked the streets of the Marais, the Latin Quarter, walked around the Louvre, visited the Tour Eiffel (but didn't inhale go up it on account of the queues for the one serviceable lift). We ate a lot of cakes. Then, just as I was about to walk past it, Mrs Brewer saw a beer shop, a very special beer shop. Le Cave a Bulles. Proprietor Simon Thillou was happy to talk about beer and was delighted to hear that I was opening a brewery. Maybe I would bring him some when we were in production? Sounds like a good idea.

Also in the shop was Simon's American friend Jordan. "Don't buy the Mikkeller 'It's Alive'. This is better. If you only buy one, buy this" and he handed me a different Mikkeller beer. At €34 it ****** **** ought to be good. I looked at Mrs Brewer. "Go on then", she said. So I became the owner of the most expensive bottle I have ever bought. I don't suppose I can put it down as a business expense but it was certainly good research for where I need to go with Poppyland Brewery. These are the leaders and the competition.

It didn't disappoint. The Mikkeller Nelson Sauvignon is a very special beer. It was plastic corked and muzzled in a sensibly brown 750 ml champagne bottle, 9% abv and it had a wonderful deep orange amber colour. The aroma just climbed out of the glass, powerful, citrus orange from the New Zealand Nelson Sauvin hops. I knew what was coming: it was going to be big. Yep. It was. A lovely foaming white head developed as it was poured, sinking gradually to a persistent ring and lacing. The first taste was huge, stacked full of fresh citrus, orange peel, Cointreau, yeasty, bitter-sweet, cidery, gorgeous, more-ish. The aroma was still there an hour later, huge, bursting. I had never had a beer like it, now smelling of fresh tea and autumn leaves in warm sunshine. This was all balanced by good malt but really, it was the hops and the gentle brett that were the stars. Ooooh! Exquisite. A tiny sip just filled the mouth. Its three months in the Austrian wine cask had certainly been time well spent. That bottle kept me entertained for the rest of the evening as I read the excellent and stimulating resource book for brewers, 'Radical Brewing' by Randy Mosher. I won't forget that evening. €34 well spent and cheaper than a disappointing 2008 Chinon that we drank at Les Papilles later that week. The food there was good, but not such good value for money as lunch at the restaurant of Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester on Mrs Brewer's birthday. It's all about the difference between cost and value for money.

By the way, in London on the way home, I visited Cask and Kitchen's Pimlico joint and there I found Mikkeller's 'It's Alive' on tap, all-be-it on top pressure. It didn't disappoint either, but it was rather cheaper, £4.60 a half if I recall. It's a busy establishment but very good for craft beer. Go there.

Charles Babbage's Brain

When I heard James Gleick on Radio 4 he immediately commanded my attention. In conversation with his interviewer his relaxed tones had authority and I knew I had to read his newest book, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (Fourth Estate, London 2011). I ordered it from Amazon and waited expectantly for its UK publication.

When the heavy paperback arrived I devoured its contents. The Information connected so many strands of my life, information science and the IT revolution that has been going on around us for several decades now. Gleick writes with clarity and insight and I would recommend it to anyone that is interested in how the modern world ticks, running as it increasingly does on pure information, coursing through its electronic nervous system.

Gleick devotes a fair amount of space to the nineteenth century mathematician Charles Babbage (1791-1871) and his far-sighted ideas about pure information which were embodied in his Difference Engine and its more advanced successor the Analytical Engine, a design for the world's first programmable computer. I was also introduced to, and rather captivated by, the precocious talent of his young pupil Ada Lovelace (nee Byron) who is credited with conceiving and actually writing the world's first computer program. She was an insatiable mathematical thinker and very sure of her own abilities, nor shy of telling everyone so.

Babbage had an amazing brain which he used to solve numerous problems in his lifetime by rigorous analysis and the application of logic. He was also a great London socialite and though he held the Lucasian chair of Mathematics at Cambridge (a post held by Isaac Newton no less) he was not required to attend the university very often and so he remained free to pursue his curiosity wherever it led him.

Imagine how captivated I was then to come face to face, so to speak, with all that remains of Charles Babbage. Well almost face to face. For in an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, suspended in a numbered glass jar, was the pickled left hemisphere of Charles Babbage's brain. I looked and looked, transfixed. It seemed a good size but not exceptional. The preparator had severed the two hemispheres through the brain stem and the knife had strayed off course, cutting into a fold in his cerebral cortex. What damage might that have inflicted had Babbage been alive! What path might the history of information science taken without the insights conceived in that colossus of an intellect that inhabited those delicate folds in this organ before me?

Such is the power of museum collections to connect and such was my amazing good fortune to have stumbled upon this artefact, while waiting for my appointment at the eye hospital along the road. I just love serendipity. By another coincidence Babbage also invented the opththalmoscope, a device which allows surgeons to see inside the eye but like his early mechanical computers his invention was forgotten and had to be independently invented by Helman von Helmholtz. I found myself seated before a modern version of one later that afternoon.

Seek out and your luck comes to you.

Monday, 9 April 2012

A surreal mammoth moment

The new season of my Geology Walks at West Runton (Norfolk, UK) began yesterday, which was Easter Sunday and I had a party of 23. There is a wealth of geology to see in this small compass but the highlight for most would be the grave site of the West Runton Mammoth, discovered in 1990 and excavated 1990-1995. This was an extremely well preserved skeleton (85% complete) of a large bull of the ancestral species, the Steppe Mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii). It died in its prime at the age of 41 and its cadaver was eaten by hyaenas (Crocuta crocuta), their characteristic tooth marks being evident of the bones. Many of the smallest bones were missing, removed presumably by the hyaenas and there was evidence of a serious subluxation (displacement) of the knee joint with which the creature had survived for some months before succumbing.

A group on my West Runton Geology Walk on 30 August 2011 -
all ages and capabilities are catered for!

This is Britain's oldest and most complete mammoth fossil. Imagine my surprise and delight then when, as I was about to launch into a spiel about larvikites, I was hailed by a voice from afar. It was my old friend and colleague Professor Tony Stuart, who directed the excavation of the West Runton Mammoth. "Martin, good to see you. I'd like to introduce you to Dr Sergy Vartanyan and his partner Diana." I smiled politely and shook hands. "He published the discovery and radiocarbon dating of the relict population of mammoths on Wrangel Island". I stepped back in honour and amazement, beamed, took off my hat and bowed. Well you would.

It was widely believed that all trace of the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) had disappeared by 9,500 BP, the victims of environmental changes at the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary, or by hunting pressure from humans, or both. But in 1993 Vartanyan and his colleagues demonstrated that the population of Wrangel Island, in the Arctic Ocean, had lived on, as they had found teeth dating between 7000 and 4000 BP. Mammoths almost made it into modern times. He also discovered that they were very small (180 - 230 cm shoulder height) on Wrangel, not 'mammoth' at all. Compare this with the West Runton Mammoth, estimated to have been 400 cm.

Where is Wrangel Island? Well, at West Runton we were just 84.2 km to the east of the Greenwich or Prime Meridian (the line of 0 degrees longitude). If you follow it northwards you pass between Greenland and Svalbard and on to the North Pole. At this point you are somewhere in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. Beyond the pole the line is called the Antimeridian. Keep going until you approach the northern coast of eastern Siberia. Before you get there the Antimeridian bisects Wrangel Island. It is 6,231 km away from Runton 'as the crow files' - assuming they fly by the great circle route. You can see where Wrangel is in this picture of Sergy and Diana in their St. Petersburgh apartment (courtesy of Tony Stuart). It is close to the top edge on the top right hand side.

It was a great honour to have the scientists who worked on the oldest mammoths and the youngest mammoths making a guest appearance on my Geology Walk!

Sunday, 1 April 2012

J.W. Lees Harvest Ale 2000

Limited edition 1 December 2000.

11.5% 275 ml bottle, crown corked.

I am celebrating the completion of the Poppyland Brewery drain. There were 5 days of traffic lights and delays in central Cromer but in the end it all went very smoothly. Tomorrow the new floor screed goes down.

I bought this little bottle of J.W. Lee's Harvest 2000 Ale, bottle conditioned, for £3.00 at a sale in Southrepps Village Hall (North Norfolk) last summer so I thought it was time for a libation in celebration and to placate the Trade Effluent Gods. As I poured this unctuous ale into a small stemmed glass it built a nice creamy head, then subsided to a ring in a minute or so. Thrusting in a nose there was a powerful, strange aroma of very aged malt. Against the light it looks dark red but it is very dark in the glass. The first taste was very sweet but malty (it was the first of the 2000 harvest of Maris Otter). Those East Kent Goldings died away years ago, so it had no real bitterness. The powerful greeting on the nose was not evident on the tongue. The flavour was dominated by cloying sweetness; so sweet in fact it that made my lips sticky. But the malt flavour lasted long after the sweetness has gone down the throat.  Considering how much alcohol there was it was very well behaved.

Has it been worth the wait – after 11 years and 4 months? Well, no not really. It was OK, but I wouldn’t rave about it. It’s certainly better than Gold Label barley wine, but not as much as it should have been. I can’t think there was much development after the first month or two. Why was it not drier after all this time? Either J.W. Lees’ ‘excellent Cervisiae’ yeast had given up the ghost in all that alcohol or the sweetness was down to dextrins, which cannot be fermented by ordinary yeast. So this beer has been in a state of suspended animation for over a decade and not getting any better. There's a lesson then.

I'll have another tipple now but the next one will be Humpty Dumpty's Christmas Crack 7%. We had a firkin of it last Saturday (a 60th birthday present from Mark and Neil - brill and thanks you guys). I bottled some off, just in case we didn't drink it all (and we didn't!). I'll tell you about the Humpty Dumpty Experience one day soon.